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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 17, 2022

Have you seen the walking, talking tree of Wellington? 

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Alex Casey talks to street performer Jared ‘Woody’ Wood, who works full time on the streets of Wellington as a flute-playing tree. 

Jarrod Wood had just changed into his tree costume in an alleyway when he came across a young woman in distress. Through tears, she told the walking, talking, life-sized tree that she had just lost a close family member. “I sort of consoled her and said ‘mother nature loves you’ and gave her a hug as the tree,” Wood explains. “That person never forgot me. They still always come up and give me a hug when they see me.” 

It is far from the first time that Wood has experienced Wellingtonians opening up to Tree, his leafy, flute-playing alter ego that can be spotted mooching about with a donation box on Cuba Street, Oriental Bay and along the Wellington waterfront on a good day. “People feel much more free to open up to me in the tree avatar,” he says over the phone. “People going through breakups, immigrant families explaining their problems in New Zealand, all sorts of things.” 

Before Tree, he was just Wood. Starting his performing career as a musician in the navy, he moved to Palmerston North in the mid-90s to teach music in secondary schools, before shifting to Wellington to work as a “DJ and saxophone player combined”. In 2005, he travelled to India to study Indian bamboo flute, an instrument he would train in and perform with for the next 14 years. “That was just amazing, I was doing so many performances because they have a very vibrant party culture, and I got music in Bollywood movies.”

Image: Instagram

But Bollywood has nothing on Wellywood, the place where Wood would finally become Tree. He returned home to New Zealand in 2019 to visit his parents and, like many, couldn’t leave the country when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. So, also like many, he took to YouTube to pass the time in lockdown. That’s where he discovered the prank genre of people wearing tree costumes to scare members of the public. “They scare the crap out of people, but then you see how they burst into laughter afterwards. That positivity created was very interesting to me.” 

Wood also thought the people of Wellington could do with a bit of lightening up. “The lockdowns made a lot of people quite emotional about their lives and the people they were missing,” he says. “I thought if you are doing something which makes people in your city laugh and smile, they will forget the stress and angst of the pandemic.”

The first step was to get the tree costume made. Wood went to The Warehouse and purchased a fleece All Blacks onesie that was on special – “I’m not a rugby fan, to be honest” – and ordered a pile of plastic ivy online. For the next two months he stitched every individual leaf onto the suit, until it started to look more and more like an actual tree. “I didn’t want it to be a scary tree, I wanted it to be a nice looking tree that people will enjoy looking at.” 

Image: Instagram

Soon enough, it was time to test it out. Wood headed into the city with the suit, a small speaker, a donation box,  and a selection of bamboo flutes to play for the public. “My knees were shaking with fear because it was such a ridiculous thing to do,” he recalled. “I had no idea how people would react, so I just stood in a garden for half an hour.” Eventually, people began approaching him, smiling and even giving him money. “I was basically just standing there – I wasn’t playing at that point, I was just testing how people reacted to the suit.” 

After getting a positive reaction on his first outing, Wood began working on his body language and movement to create a fully formed character – a tree who has come down from the forest to visit the city people. “When I see kids I say ‘hi small human’ or ‘hello person’,” he laughs. Sometimes he will stand camouflaged in the bushes behind his donation box that says “Kia ora, I am Tree”. When people read it aloud he will say “no, you are human, I am Tree” from beneath the foliage. “That’s always a nice joke too.”

It is not just the character that has developed over the two years he has been Tree. Wood made a second prototype of the tree suit after the first one proved too hot. This time, he sliced out the fleece paneling of the onesie and replaced it with mesh, slowly adding new leaves and over 1,000 fairy lights. “It all just suddenly clicked in my head – this is walking decor. You have a speaker, you have flutes, you have lights, it’s like a tiny festival that roams around the city.” 

Image: Instagram

Wood’s knees no longer knock when he walks around the city as Tree. He says one night he made two different groups of people cry with his flute playing, which he says “is the highest compliment for a musician”. He says he has learned to gauge the mood of the city on any given day, and has developed a knack for plucking out former military members in a crowd. “When they see you, they look very focused and serious, like ‘this person is in a sniper suit’. You can see it touches on something a bit different for them.” 

Earlier in the year he even took Tree to visit the occupation at parliament, hastening to add that he was not a protester himself. “I was just aware there were a whole bunch of angsty people in the city who needed to chill out a little bit,” he laughs. “I got accused of being an undercover policeman by a scary-looking person in a high-vis vest, but I assured him that a policeman couldn’t play the flute as good as I can.” 

Wood has no plans to retire Tree any time soon. “As I keep performing I find out different things that people like about it,” he says. “Children around town will tell me ‘oh, I can see your fingers’, so now I paint my fingers green, or they say ‘I can see your shoes’, so now I really layer on the leaves so you can’t see the shoes at all.” But it’s not just the kids who like Tree – he says he’s had memorable interactions with everyone from elderly folks to heavily tattooed blokes. 

“It’s shown me that everyone has something good and fun and sweet inside of them, regardless of how they look or who they are,” Wood says. “I hope it shows each person I meet that they have their own magic inside of them as well.”

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